Remains of Alec Collett found in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley

This is an ugly and traumatic story.

Alec Collett, a former colleague accredited as a journalist at UNHQ/NY in the early to mid-1980s, was one of those internationals kidnapped during the long Lebanese civil war.  Alec was taken from a car near Beirut airport in March  1985, while on a temporary assignment for UNRWA in Lebanon.  The car’s driver was also seized, but later released

After the U.S. attack on Libya in the spring of 1986, there were reports that those holding Alec had executed him in retaliation. A video was released, showing his body hanging from the limb of a leafy tree.

But, for unclear reasons, the UN did not want to acknowledge Alec’s execution. The UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, expressed anger but offered no explanation when asked directly by this journalist — at the time, the President of the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA) why the UN was not accepting the reports of Alec’s death.  UNCA issued a statement condemning the reported execution, and asking for a prompt return of the body, to help ease the anguish of Alec’s family.

Though there was no apparent reason to disbelieve the claims about the execution, nothing was entirely sure about Alec’s fate until this week, when British DNA tests reportedly conducted in London confirmed that a body unearthed recently in the Bekaa Valley by a British forensics team was, indeed, that of Alec Collett.

Photo from Daily Mail - Officials inspect the place where the remains of Alec Collett were found

[Months before the execution, as the BBC reported in a profile published on their website, “the United Nations Correspondents’ Association … made him [Alec Collett] their honorary president, a title he has retained ever since”… The BBC report, posted here, is wrong in a couple of respects, including these: (1) the decision to name Alec as “honorary president” of UNCA was taken at the end of 1985, and not in 1986; UNCA is not, as the BBC wrote, an “organisation for journalists based around the world” — it is an organization for journalists accredited to UNHQ in New York. And, this decision, taken at the urging of some colleagues, was not popular with all of the journalists. Some, who had not hesitated to use his captivity for their own political purposes in the UNCA elections held at the end of 1985, were nevertheless opposed to making Alec Collett “honorary president” on the grounds that (as they argued) he had been on a temporary assignment to UNRWA, and not working strictly as a journalist, at the time he was kidnapped …]

The Times of London reported on 19 November that “Seven British police officers and two forensic archaeologists are excavating near the village of Aitta al-Fuqar in the Bekaa Valley. It is the site of a base belonging to Fatah — the Revolutionary Council. The radical and violent Palestinian group was led by Sabri al-Banna, better known as Abu Nidal.  The team found two bodies, one of them an unidentified man who was first found during an earlier attempt to find Mr Collett 11 years ago. It was reinterred by Lebanese authorities. The second body is undergoing DNA tests to discover if it is Mr Collett.  Lebanese troops have sealed off the site to reporters and onlookers”.  This report can be found here

A second report by the Times of London, published on 24 November, said that “The UN confirmed yesterday that remains unearthed by British investigators in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley are those of Alec Collett, a British journalist kidnapped in 1985 and killed a year later. A spokesman said that Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary-General, while saddened by the news, ‘hopes the actions taken to find his remains can provide a measure of comfort to his loved ones’. The remains were identified with the help of DNA tests conducted in London by the Metropolitan Police. Collett, who was 64 when he was abducted, was on assignment with the UN reporting on Palestinian refugees in April 1985. He was kidnapped by Fatah Revolutionary Council, a radical Palestinian group headed by Abu Nidal. Collett is survived by his wife, Elaine, who also worked for the UN and lives in New York. Last week’s search was the fourth attempt in 11 years to recover his remains. The hunt had been narrowed to an isolated military base, once run by Abu Nidal militants, between the village of Aitta al-Fukhar and the Syrian border. The camp consists of a handful of derelict single-storey concrete buildings scattered on the slopes of a steep rocky valley. The walls of one abandoned building were daubed with sketches of the huge wooden water wheels in the Syrian city of Hama, and of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, and his father Hafez al-Assad. The camp housed a small detachment of Syrian troops until 2005. One of the buildings was half-buried beneath bulldozed earth and rock for protection against attack, and it was here that Mr Collett spent his last weeks in captivity. The cell block consisted of three small rooms and a simple latrine. The doors and any furniture and fittings inside the cramped building long ago disappeared and today it appears to be a shelter for goats that scramble over the surrounding slopes. Mr Collett’ fate was sealed after US aircraft bombed Tripoli, in Libya on April 15, 1986. In retaliation, eight days later, the Libyan-backed militants took Mr Collett from his bleak cell and hanged him, then shot him in the back of the head — according to a Palestinian eyewitness whose testimony in 2005 provided additional confirmation that the British journalist had been buried on the site. A team from the Metropolitan police counterterrorist department and two forensic archaeologists began excavating a section of the camp on November 14. A digger scraped away the surface layer of stony soil, then investigators worked the ground by hand. Small red flags marked the spot of each dig. The operation was conducted amid tight security, with Lebanese troops keeping reporters and onlookers away, but The Times was able to gain access to the site. ‘We looked for signs of disturbance in the soil and focussed on those areas’, said one of the investigators. Two bodies were discovered. One of them was that of a suspected Palestinian militant whose remains were first uncovered during an earlier search for Mr Collett’s body in 1998, and subsequently re-interred by Lebanese authorities. The second body was that of Mr Collett, the bullet hole in the skull convincing the investigators that they had found their man pending the final result of the DNA tests”. This Times of London report is posted here

While the Times of London report, above, said that “Last week’s search was the fourth attempt in 11 years to recover his remains”, a BBC report here said that the UN “tried three times between 1995 and 2000 to find his body and there have been numerous false alarms”.

Two UN officials were trying to get Alec Collett’s release much earlier — in the months immediately after his abduction, and after the reports of the execution: Perez de Cuellar’s aide Gianni Picco, who got involved in some of the hostage negotiations as part of larger regional efforts, and the Lebanese-Palestinian information official, Samir Sanbar. They operated, apparently, on different tracks. I was also told, at the time, that the high-ranking British UN official Brian Urquhart, was also involved on another separate track. And, UNCA made several quiet attempts, at the time, to contact various personalities in Lebanon to seek their help, without result…

My friend and mentor Promeneur, who did not speak to me for more than a year because of the UNCA election and its results, wrote me this week from London and said: “They did the DNA and yes it’s Alec. Any suggestion how I might contact Elaine? She with the UN still I wonder? Gosh their son will be in his mid-30s … and Alec he would now be 87 I think I got that right, double-gosh … Turns out it was … a retaliatory gesture after Reagan bombed Tripoli (remember how it was timed to run live on the 10 o’clock news) … otherwise they figure he was about to be released. All those years I’d imagined it must have been a Lebanese group, reasoning that Alec’s strong PLO sympathies must have tripped him up. Then I reasoned that he wouldn’t have lasted long without his medication – he had diabetes and other stuff, but no seems they did hang him. A guy doing life in the US has given an eye-witness account. The assignment had been a gift from UNRWA who knew how broke he was – it was going to clear his credit card debts etc.”…